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Friday, November 23, 2012

The fan's view: Keeping it weird

From the moment you set foot in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, you see messages to "Keep Austin Weird," the adopted slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance.

One might say there are few things weirder than this city's decision to welcome the circus into town.

F1 returned to the United States for the first time in five years last weekend, and it went far better than anyone could have predicted. The track was awesome, the racing was tight, the championship battle stayed alive for the finale in Brazil and the U.S fan was treated to something special.

I, like many, shook my head with disbelief when it was announced that the sport would be returning to U.S. in of all places, Austin. As I watched developments in Texas over the last couple of years, my emotions ran the gamut -- hope, anger, fear. However, my first experience in Austin was, simply put, brilliant.

Preparing for the trip was something of a nuisance, as flights changed several times. Fans were also, quite honestly, raked over the coals for hotel pricing, one of the few things that may prevent me from returning regularly. Certainly a contrast to the sport's years at Indy. Nevertheless, moving around the city of Austin was a breeze, even during the Friday rush, and the city offers plenty to see and do, no matter where your interests lie.

One genuinely felt welcome in Austin, that the city was excited to host this event on the world stage. Where at Indianapolis F1 was just one of several events the race track hosted, and certainly not the "big one," this was Austin's premier motor racing event, and it showed as it opened its doors to the F1 crowd. Journalists likened the atmosphere to locales like Montreal and Adelaide, which is a huge compliment.

The track was beautiful. This Hermann Tilke credited-project, with huge assists by Tavo Hellmund and 1993 Motorcycle World Champion Kevin Schwantz, provided elevation, decent sight lines, wide entries for overtaking, and earned plaudits from journalists, drivers, teams and fans alike.

While the facilities are top-notch, there are a few lessons hopefully track officials take this inaugural event:
  • Requiring fans sit in assigned seats for practice and quali robs them of the opportunity to see the track from multiple views, and perhaps decide to upgrade their package for the next race.
  • A pit walk for the general fan, not just the well heeled, would be a highlight.
  • Make sure there is enough food and beverage for all days. F1 fans show up for practice and qualification.
  • More than four small stands of track-related memorabilia on a 3+ mile course would prevent 2-3 hour waits in line for sold out items.

But honestly, as annoying as some of these items were, they certainly did not detract from the overall spectacle of the race. After a decade of being shoehorned into the oval at Indy (and don't get me wrong, the majesty of Indy is unequaled on these shores), F1, back on a proper track, and not a street course or parking lot, was awe-inspiring.

Moreover, F1 delivered on all of its promise. The racing was some of the best it has been all year, with Lewis Hamilton overtaking Sebastian Vettel on the track for the lead. There was a little bit of intrigue with Ferrari deciding to break the seal on Felipe Massa's gearbox, but not so much as to spoil the party, and thanks to a number of changes implemented over the last couple of years, the title was not decided a month before coming to Austin. This race counted, and with titles on the line, the U.S. fan benefited.

Roughly 65K fans on Friday, 85K Saturday and 117K Sunday are numbers most tracks only dream about. The challenge now is to repeat something close in year two, when the newness has worn off. Don't forget Indy had 200k+ in its first year, and never matched that.

So, the trick is to keep expectations within reason. Yes, the U.S. has many sports offerings, and F1 is clearly a niche. However, even a niche portion of the U.S. sports fan base is a huge number, and I'd lay good money that niche is far better educated about the sport than the average fan.

And interest is growing. New Jersey may have been postponed, but Bernie Ecclestone will be hard pressed to give up on his dream of a race featuring the New York City skyline, so you better put your bet on that happening. And we are beginning to hear rumblings about a return to Long Beach.

Three races in the U.S., I can dream, can't I?

If the sport is to be successful again in the U.S., it got about the best kick start it could hope for in a place most in the F1 community likely never thought they'd visit in their lifetimes.

Weird, huh?

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